Over the past decade, I’ve attended several professional conventions for the American Institute of Architects throughout the nation. Looking back, I can say that the local architectural tours in the host city have been the best value added component to these educational conferences. The ideas and impressions taken away have often been more clearly shaped by the experiences in the host city and surrounding areas than by what transpired inside the convention venue. This was certainly the case this past May when we toured the Raymond Farm Center for Living Arts and Design and the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex in New Hope, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is, of course, the birthplace of our nation and any architectural tour of that city should include visits to Independence Hall, Carpenters Hall, and the Barnes Foundation. But a chance discussion with a colleague, John Defazio, tipped us off to a weekend tour that was not sold out and became the lasting impression of AIA Philadelphia 2016 for me and my wife, Jennie. With the knowledgeable guidance of Defazio and architectural guides we joined a small group for an inspiring afternoon in Bucks County for a tour and discussion of pioneers Antonin and Noemi Raymond and their impact on the American Craft movement as well as George Nakashima and his family.
Antonin and Noémi Raymond were European/American architects and had worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920s, most notably on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. After leaving Wright’s studio, the Raymonds stayed on to establish their own architecture and design practice and would eventually become known as the founders of modern architecture in Japan. As Defazio explained, “With War looming, they returned to the United States and in 1939 created ‘the New Hope Experiment’ with a goal to ‘create a physical and intellectual environment that mirrored and supported their approach to modern design–one that synthesized International Style developments with lessons learned from craft traditions.’” The Raymonds believed that integrating creative work and cultivation of the land would lead to a simpler, closer, in-tune-with-nature lifestyle–similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. In New Hope, Pennsylvania, they purchased, modified and added to an 18th-century Quaker farmhouse, what would later become known as the Raymond Farm. Having time to experience the Raymonds’ craft at their farmhouse connected the dots for me as years ago I had seen their work in Japan and recalled discussions with several of my architecture school classmates at Kobe University who still work in the Raymond Design Studio in Tokyo.
The second stop at the Nakashima Woodworker Gallery and Studio was no less a treat for me. George Nakashima started his architectural journey at my alma mater, the University of Washington. I’ve long admired the elegant simplicity of his furniture.
Jennie and I were nonetheless surprised and delighted with the experience of being guests at the studio and residence of the Nakashima family. His work and his story, including his time in Antonin Raymond’s office in Tokyo, his wartime incarceration at Camp Minidoka, Idaho, the Raymonds’ help in releasing Nakashima from the camp and their resettlement to the New Hope farm were quietly but poignantly revealed during the tour of the complex. Nakashima’s grandson, Rue, hosted the tour and treated the 30 or so architects and partners as invited guests of the family.
Throughout the compound, the careful but simple detailing of the buildings placed in a serene wooded landscape reminded me of Nakashima’s philosophy that his furniture not be seen as overly precious, that it was meant to be lived with. His love of wood and his goal to find the “wonderful phenomenon of a living spirit in a tree” were seen in everything from the small wooden sign at the entry to the thousands of board feet of black walnut slabs lining the walls of his storehouses. The tours that day gave me the chance to reflect on the impact of thoughtful, committed designers who influence us every day.